Emile Holba

And do you have to be musical to teach music. Is there a difference?

I want to try and clarify my stance on this by looking at some of the things I have taught and seen others teach over the years and in particular how it has been taught.

Fresh from Uni I was armed with a music degree and having had plenty of opportunities to perform in a variety of musical contexts on several instruments I certainly thought of myself as a musician at the time. However, I don’t think, looking back, that I was particularly musical. As part of my PGCE we did some improvising and without notation, I froze. I certainly didn’t consider myself to be any kind of composer and singing without the comfort of the formality of a choir with a conductor and the music was my least favourite activity. I shied away from conducting anything and was MD for 4 musicals in my first job from the safety of the piano, despite my having re-arranged all the music for the bands so that everyone who wanted to play could do so, regardless of their ability level.

In her blog about this topic Sandie Heckel asks what the definition of a musician actually is and I agree that this is the starting point for this debate.

As a trainee music teacher, one project I was asked to teach to year 9 in my 2nd placement school involved the class playing the theme tune from MASH on tuned percussion from notation. Other projects were similar in approach.

My mentor fed back to me that my strength in this placement was being able to take a topic and come up with a huge range of musical examples from different genres for students to listen to as part of such projects.

What musical understanding, knowledge, skills or musicianship did I need to be able to teach these topics? A basic knowledge of notation would probably have been sufficient and I could have taught myself to read music pretty easily in the same way that when I taught history in my NQT year I learned the content from a textbook.

Sadly the MASH project was assessed on how many correct notes and rhythms the students played so it wasn’t really about how it sounded when they all played together. Now that’s where musicianship may have really kicked in, had we worked to play as an ensemble and really refine the performance, but that wasn’t why we were doing it.

Later as the idea of ‘starters’ started to become non-negotiable,  INSET training provided a wealth of ideas for how to get students focussed. Key Word Hangman, Wordsearches, anagrams on the board, a piece of text or a picture as a stimulus for discussion, all of these started to appear in music lessons (in fact, I still see these regularly on schemes of work and in lessons I watch in various schools). Again, it’s rather too easy to just download these for the interactive white board, you don’t need to be a musician to do this. Then if the core of the lesson involves playing on instruments from a worksheet, couldn’t anyone teach themselves the basics and get on with it? So if that’s the approach we take to music teaching, I’d argue that you don’t need to be a musician to teach it, nor do you need to be musical. Just have a grasp of structuring practical lessons and be willing to teach yourself as you go along!

In contrast, I don’t think a non-musican could teach my lessons. For a start, they’re pretty hard to plan for. First you need a musical activity to start with, whether that’s singing, clapping, instrumental or anything else! Then students have a great deal of input into the objectives for the lesson and I can be asked for help with anything from feedback on a musical idea they have composed to how to integrate a vocal line with an accompaniment pattern or how you can add chords to a melody or vice versa. Sometimes I have to stand in the middle of the room and help 30 students to formulate sound into music, or get them all playing something as we devise and refine musical ideas to create a class composition. If they are in groups, I need to help them develop skills on any instrument they may have found in the cupboard or be asked to help them to work out a pattern by ear. From freezing when asked to improvise, I’m making it up on the spot now all the time, modelling how students can experiment with pitch and rhythm until the get to where they want to be and I improvise as a teacher too, having to have a list of musical ‘plan Bs’ up my sleeve in case plan A simply doesn’t work!

Now I have trainees of my own, all of whom are perfectly competent and often outstanding musicians. However most struggle with getting to grips with these approaches because they are far from their own musical experiences or are alien in comparison with what they have seen in previous placements. But when they do go with it, seeing someone else embark on that musical journey from musician to musical reminds me of my own journey and reinforces for me that I may finally have got a bit closer to getting it right in my classroom for now.

My conclusions?

Musician doesn’t always=musical

Certain approaches to music teaching can absolutely be taught well by anyone

Musical approaches to music teaching require a flexible teacher who is willing to accept they may well have plenty more learning of their own to do before they can really call themselves a “music specialist”.